Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Corky Siemaszko

This Kentucky congressman has two engineering degrees from MIT, two dozen patents to his name, and was dubbed a “whiz kid” after he developed technology which enabled people to “interact with computers using their sense of touch.”

But Rep. Thomas Massie’s reputation as a genius took a hit Wednesday after he tangled with former Secretary of State John Kerry at a House committee hearing on the dangers of climate change.

Massie apparently thought he could discredit Kerry by getting the former senator to admit that he has — wait for it — a political science degree from Yale University.

“Okay, so it’s not really science,” Massie said. “So I think it’s somewhat appropriate that someone with a pseudoscience degree is here pushing pseudoscience in front of our committee today.”

“Are you serious?” an incredulous Kerry fired back. “Is this really serious? This is really happening here?”

From there, the back-and-forth grew more heated.

“This is just not a serious conversation,” Kerry said.

Massie on Thursday insisted he’d won the debate by getting Kerry to admit “he doesn’t have a science degree.”

Many in the blogosphere disagreed, with critics dismissing Massie’s grilling of Kerry as “the dumbest line of questioning” and worse.

NBC News reached out to Massie on Thursday to see if he has any regrets about his clash with Kerry and to explain how he, a man of science, squares climate change skepticism with the fact that the overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is a real and present danger to the planet. Massie did not return requests for comment.

Also, NBC News had hoped to ask Massie about the Tesla he drives and the fact that he uses, according to his web site, “a combination of solar, geothermal, propane and wood” to power the off-the-grid house he built for himself, his wife and their four children on a cattle farm in Lewis County, Kentucky.

Back in January 2018, Massie posted a video about his quest to give his home a power boost by scavenging a battery from a totaled Tesla.

Bill Aulet, who now directs the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, was president of SensAble Technologies — the high-tech company Massie and his wife, Rhonda, founded in Woburn, Massachusetts — from 1996 to 2002. He called Massie's duel with Kerry "classic Thomas."

“He’s a human troll in the sense that he likes to stir things up,” Aulet told NBC News. “He’s a contrarian and he has his own point of view on things like climate change.”

And contrary to what his critics are saying, Massie is no fool.

“I’m not saying I agree with him,” Aulet said. “But he’s incredibly smart and if you’re going to disagree with him you’re going to have to bring facts. He’s one of those guys who will ask, 'What data do you have on this issue?'”

Massie was born in Huntington, West Virginia, and grew up in the small depressed town of Vanceburg, on the Ohio River in northeastern Kentucky.

The son of a beer distributor, Massie grew up taking things apart, creating contraptions, and competing in science fairs. His high school sweetheart and future wife shared his passion.

By 1989, Massie was at MIT and soon distinguished himself by winning a campus-wide robotics design competition by coming up with a machine that harvested ping-pong balls.

“He was probably the first person from his zip code that ever went to MIT,” Aulet said. “Thomas was not a fish out of water at MIT. He loved it here. This is a place full of people who don’t quite fit in anywhere else.”

Rhonda followed Massie to MIT two years later and together they constructed the early prototypes of The Phantom, a device that an Xconomy profile of the congressman described as able to “simulate being able to touch and manipulate objects in the virtual world with your hand.”

They incorporated their fledgling business in Kentucky while Massie continued coming up with patented technological innovations that found their way into products produced by Google, Microsoft and other companies, according to Xconomy.

At its peak, SensAble had hundreds of customers and employed 60 to 70 people.

But by 2003, the Massies had enough of running the company and living in New England and decided to move back home, where they bought 1,200 acres and started constructing a new life and home.

It was anger over plans to raise property taxes to pay for a federal conservation in the county that launched Massie into politics. In 2010, he rode the tea party wave to win the race to be his conservative Republican county’s top executive.

Backed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Massie was elected to Congress in 2012 and quickly carved out a reputation as one of its most conservative members. He is in favor of things like eliminating the federal Department of Education and repealing Obamacare. He is pro-gun and anti-abortion.

Aulet, who jokingly referred to himself as a “coastal elite,” said that while he does not agree with Massie on most issues he doesn’t question his sincerity.

“Thomas told me that when he first got to Congress the speaker sent somebody down to sit next to him and get him to change his vote on some issue,” Aulet said. “Thomas told him, ‘What data do you have on this issue? I’m not going to change my vote unless you give me more data.’ He’s a nice guy, but he’s not a go along to get along kind of guy.”